It may not be the most data-driven indicator that it’s time for an IT migration, but when an on-premises server room is overflowing with cabling spilling out from every cabinet and so hopelessly tangled that it’s impossible to see where anything is plugged in, the need to make a change of some kind is becoming urgent. A poorly designed cabling system not only creates confusion and limits IT flexibility, but can also obstruct air flow, causing servers to run hotter and put more pressure on a cooling system. Migrating IT assets into a colocation data center provides a fresh start that allows organizations to take a more structured approach to cabling that delivers greater flexibility and efficiency while enabling future growth.
Unstructured Cabling vs Structured Cabling: What’s the Difference?
There’s no avoiding the fact that any data center environment will require a lot of cabling to create network connectivity between servers, routers, and other equipment on the data floor. What sets facilities apart, however, is the approach they take to cable management.
What is Unstructured Cabling?
As the name suggests, unstructured cabling involves making direct, point-to-point connections between individual devices without the use of patch panels or any system for organizing the cabling. While this theoretically has the advantage of creating faster direct connections between devices, whatever performance benefits it provides are quickly undermined by other inefficiencies. Over time, unstructured cabling pathways can become a tangled mess of lengthy cord runs that pile up on the floor and around server cabinets. Even if cables are labeled, it quickly becomes difficult to locate both ends of a connection quickly, which makes maintenance and troubleshooting much more time consuming. The point-to-point nature of this cabling infrastructure also means that whenever a new device is deployed, new cables need to be added to the growing mass to ensure the device connects to everything else. In its most egregious form, unstructured cabling resembles a great mass of spaghetti noodles dangling from the cabinet’s server ports and piling up on the floor.
What is Structured Cabling
A structured cabling system takes a much more thoughtful and deliberate approach to cable management. It utilizes a combination of patch panels and pre-terminated trunk cables to connect server cabinets to multiple distribution areas. Effectively, everything in the data center is pre-wired and ready to be connected to the infrastructure. When a new server is slotted into a cabinet, for instance, it need only be connected to the short trunk cables running from the patch bay, which in turn connects to routers and other equipment through horizontal cabling that runs along the ceiling or underneath the floor. This structure is easy to map out and manage, which improves IT efficiency and reduces the risk of errors due to confusion over where cables are connected.
The High Cost of Unstructured Cabling
As with many other long-term IT challenges, it’s important to understand why organizations end up using unstructured cabling in the first place because the decision is not always a byproduct of carelessness. Implementing a well-designed structured cabling solution is time consuming and usually requires additional investments in equipment and expertise. For many small to medium sized organizations with limited IT budgets, this may seem like an unnecessary luxury. Using unstructured cabling allows them to deploy equipment quickly and get key aspects of their tech stack up and running. In other cases, the engineering team may not have a lot of experience with setting up infrastructure and forget to incorporate cabling when they’re mapping out where equipment will be located on the data floor.
Sometimes there may be an intention to go back later and “do things right,” but the big problem with unstructured cabling is that it becomes more difficult to reorganize over time as new components are added. Since everything works on point-to-point connections, unplugging everything to reorganize the cabling would mean enduring an extended period of downtime. Unfortunately, a messy, disorganized deployment has a way of perpetuating poor cable management practices. While the initial deployment may have saved a bit of time and money by simply connecting everything directly, those benefits vanish quickly when tangles of cabling make it impossible to even see (much less reach) the equipment mounted in the racks.
4 Benefits of Structured Cabling
Migrating assets from a cluttered on-premises solution is an ideal opportunity to liberate an organization’s tech stack from the burden of unstructured cabling. Since servers need to be unplugged and removed, all the excess cabling can be ripped out and discarded in favor of a structured system that implements the very best cable management practices.
Here are a few important benefits of adopting a structured cabling solution for IT infrastructure:
1. Improved Scalability
Because structured cabling uses a combination of hubs and patch bays to connect equipment, the infrastructure is effectively modular. This makes it easy to quickly add new devices because the connections are already in place to accommodate them. Even adding a new cabinet is simplified because it only involves running a horizontal line from the cabinet to the nearest interchange. For organizations looking to scale their IT operations, having a structured cabling solution in place is essential for smooth, sustainable growth.
2. Lower Costs
A structured cabling system may incur additional costs up front, but over the lifespan of the deployment, it ends up being far more cost effective than an unstructured approach. Not only is it easier to manage and service, but keeping cabling neatly tucked away and clear of equipment allows air to flow more freely through the data floor. That translates into lower cooling costs over time and less wear and tear on servers due to excessive heat.
3. Increased Efficiency
Imagine a situation where a technician needs to disconnect a server from a rack, but can’t even reach it without disconnecting several other servers in the cabinet due to excessive cabling. Now a task that should take no more than a few minutes is taking much longer to complete and is introducing multiple complications and opportunities for mistakes into the process. In a structured cabling environment, equipment is not only easily accessible, but the connections between every device is clearly documented. This allows data center technicians to quickly resolve hardware and network issues without wasting time untangling cable or figuring out how everything is connected.
4. Reduced Downtime
There’s a lot that can go wrong in an unstructured cabling environment. Servers may overheat and crash due to cables obstructing air flow. A technician might unplug a cable that disconnects a server from a network without knowing they were even connected. When a router fails, it takes longer to replace because it’s so difficult to extract the old device from a forest of cabling. All of these problems translate into a much greater risk of system downtime. A structured cabling environment provides better visibility into dependencies between equipment and better access to the infrastructure. This not only makes it much easier to manage, but also minimizes the risk of human error.